Program notes: Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto and Bach’s Double Violin Concerto

Monday, July 29, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Bach: Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043

Mozart: Concerto No. 5 in A Major for Violin, K. 219, “Turkish”

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra, BWV 1043

Composed: 1730-31
Instrumentation: 2 solo violins, harpsichord, and strings

Bach took up his position as Kantor (music director) at the Thomasschule in Leipzig in 1723. Considering Bach to be a mediocrity, the town council hired him reluctantly after their two preferred candidates dropped out of the running for the position. As the most prominent musical figure in the city, Bach’s duties were manifold, and his productivity—especially for the church in those early Leipzig years—was astounding. During his first two years there, Bach composed a new cantata for each Sunday service and religious festival, two full cycles of incredible grace and complexity. On top of this, he oversaw the training of four choirs, gave constant voice and instrumental lessons, provided music for various city events, and served as music director of the university. By early 1729, Bach had completed two additional complete cantata cycles, and may have felt the desire to turn his compositional energies in a different direction. That same year, he took over as director of Leipzig’s renowned collegium musicum, a mix of professional and university musicians giving weekly concerts at two coffee houses in the city. This new position afforded Bach the opportunity to expand his secular music output, and it is likely that many of his concertos date from this period of time. The well-known Double Violin Concerto was probably composed for performance at one of these collegium musicum events, though some scholars believe that it was adapted from an earlier work for its Leipzig debut.

There is something tremendously “catchy” about the first movement of the concerto. The relentless forward momentum, the rhythmic vitality, and the ingenious mixing of quick runs and widely spaced intervals (projecting what is called “compound melody”) are all striking, and the way that the soloists’ individual lines intertwine is mesmerizing. The movement is a fine example of the ritornello form used in Baroque concertos: the full ensemble plays recurring “ritornello” material that alternates with freer solo—or, this case, duo—sections. The opening ritornello is the lengthiest (here, presented as a 3-part fugue), and the solo episodes are lightly accompanied by the balance of the ensemble.

The sublime middle movement features the two solo violins in delicate imitative counterpoint, as if the two players are in expressive conversation with one another. The ensemble plays a supporting role here, never breaking a hypnotic rhythmic ostinato (repeated phrase): a short-long pattern that gently leans into each beat.

Virtuosity reigns in the finale. Bach returns to ritornello form as an organizing principle, but here is pushing the form closer to its eventual landing point, the Classical rondo. While still differentiated into thematic ritornello repetitions and freer episodes, the music’s distinction between tutti and soloist is dissolved. Instead, the two soloists take a central role throughout the entire movement, with the ensemble providing harmonic foundation and strong structural emphasis, especially at the ends of the ritornello sections. The low strings are also featured in unusual counterpoint with the soloists. Like the first movement, the momentum here is relentless, but Bach opts to end the piece with a D minor harmony rather than D major that ended the opening movement.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Concerto No. 5 in A Major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 219, “Turkish”

Composed: 1775
Instrumentation: Solo violin, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings

During a concentrated period of composition in the last half of 1775 in Salzburg, Mozart wrote the last four of his five violin concertos, completing the fifth in December of that year. Although Mozart the performer was chiefly associated with the piano, he was also an accomplished violinist, and he probably had himself in mind as soloist when he wrote the concertos for his court orchestra in Salzburg in 1775 (he was the concertmaster at the time). The compositions must have warmed the cockles of his father’s heart, as he had always considered his son’s talents on the violin to be exceptional but underutilized. In 1772, his father wrote to him, “You don’t realize yourself how well you play the violin when you are on your mettle and perform with confidence, spirit, and fire.”  Leopold continued to encourage his son’s violin playing through the years, writing to him in 1777, “When I was saying the other day that you played the violin passably, [Salzburg violinist Antonio] Brunetti burst out, ‘What? Nonsense!  He could play anything!’”

Although later violin concertos have been dubiously attributed to him, the concerto that we hear this evening is probably Mozart’s swan song for full violin concertos (he did go on to write a number of individual movements for violin and orchestra).

These concertos are early works for Mozart, who was still a teenager at the time of their composition. It is remarkable, therefore, to consider the brevity of the mere 45 years between these concertos and Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. During that span, the Baroque era had transitioned through the innovations of the galante style (marked by a return to simplicity) to the Classical period. With this transition came an entirely new approach to concerto form, especially with respect to the standard first movement of the concerto. Gone was Bach’s ritornello—which he had adapted from Vivaldi’s earlier works—replaced with so-called sonata form which was more stylized, but offered unprecedented dramatic possibilities, eventually to culminate with the innovations of Beethoven. Mozart had perfected the crafting of the concerto opener around the scaffolding of the new sonata form structure, with archetypal examples in his first four violin concertos. But by the fifth, Mozart was pushing on the expectations of the form, developing and innovating an approach that even in its standard form at the time would have been shockingly alien to Bach in the 1730s.

In particular, the first movement contains a twist in its form that scholar Donald Tovey called “one of the greatest surprises ever perpetuated in a concerto.”  The final movement also contains a witty surprise: a “Turkish” theme appears quite unexpectedly in the middle of that movement. Mozart borrowed the theme from music that he had composed two years earlier for the ballet Le gelosie del serraglio. The unique combination of humor and elegance in this concerto have made it a favorite among audiences and violinists for over 200 years.

The innovation in the first movement comes after the standard concerto introduction of themes by the orchestra. Instead of having the solo violin launch into a repetition of these themes, Mozart suddenly shifts to adagio, and the violin enters with an expressive new melody. This had never been done before and has not been done since (at least to my knowledge!). When the allegro does start up again, the violin introduces yet another new theme that includes a spiral descent that seems to accelerate into the fall. The initial orchestral material—which Mozart had set up as the expected first theme—actually serves as accompaniment to this much bolder violin melody. Only the second part of the opening tutti is taken up by the soloist.

The E major second movement begins with an orchestral section that sets a comfortable pace and is characterized by quick shifts between piano and forte. The form is fairly free, with three distinct entrances by the violin, each expanding on the introduction through B major and G-sharp minor. The movement ends with a cadenza or unaccompanied solo passage. Unusually, each movement of the work contains a cadenza; the cadenzas written by nineteenth-century violinist Joseph Joachim have become standard in modern performances, and will be played tonight by Ray Chen.

The rondo finale, in the form A-B-A-C-A-D-A-B-A, begins as a stately, refined minuet, a stylized dance that is crisp and graceful. One can only imagine the surprise of the first audience when the A minor Turkish theme (section D in the aforementioned form) began and the Classical violinist suddenly became a gypsy fiddler!  The Turkish dance moves along at breakneck speed, and short, rude chromatic waves sweep up and down in the orchestra between the fiddler’s sections. The low strings are even directed to play col legno, with the wood part of their bows. A cadenza links the gypsy episode back to the refined minuet, ending the movement as gracefully as it began.


Program notes by Jon Kochavi